Throbbing Headaches – Causes and Treatment

Headaches are a very common symptom that affects many adults and some children. However, not all people experience the same type of headache. A number of different types of headaches are known to exist, each with its own peculiar set of symptoms. Some of the most commonly reported headaches include stress headaches (also known as tension headaches), migraines, cluster headaches, sinus headaches, mixed headache syndrome, acute headaches, hormone headaches, and chronic progressive headaches.

What are throbbing headaches?

Throbbing headaches are described as a pounding, pulsating, rhythmic or explosive pressure sensation in the head. People may also describe the pain sensation of a throbbing headache in various ways such as dull pain, sharp pain, squeezing sensation, or burning sensation. In a throbbing headache, the pain sensation usually rises and falls rhythmically, often in accordance with the heart beat.

A throbbing headache can affect the different parts of the head. It may be felt all over the head. Alternatively, the sensation may be restricted to only one region (such as the temples or the back of the head). The headache may appear suddenly (acute) or be a chronic and constant feature in a person’s life. In some cases, a throbbing headache may be episodic, with bouts of pain interspersed with a long pain-free periods.

Also read headache location.

Other Symptoms

A throbbing headache may also be accompanied by other symptoms. Some of the commonly associated symptoms are:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Visual aura
  • Chills, fevers, fatigue, sore throat, cough, body pain
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Pain in ears
  • Pain over sinuses
  • Light-headedness
  • Depression and irritability
  • Hypersensitivity to noise or light
  • Postnasal drip, runny nose, stuffy nose
  • Drowsiness
  • Bulging on the head
  • Bleeding from ear
  • Disorientation
  • Projectile vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Vision problems
  • Stiffness in neck

Causes of Throbbing Headaches

Throbbing headaches have a variety of causes. Some are very common and not a cause for major concern. However, a throbbing headache may also be caused by a serious or life-threatening condition. Attention must be paid to other accompanying symptoms to determine when a throbbing headache needs immediate or emergency medical attention.

Sudden Onset Throbbing Headaches

  • Physical exertion: Throbbing headaches can occur as a result of extreme physical exertion (such as in sports).
  • Flu: Flu could also cause throbbing headaches in addition to other symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes, fever, body ache and runny nose.
  • Alcohol hangover: A throbbing headache is a characteristic feature of morning hangovers caused by an evening of heavy drinking.
  • Allergy: Some respiratory allergies, such as allergic rhinitis, are also associated with headaches. Inflammation of sinuses (sinusitis) is commonly associated with throbbing headaches. Facial pain over the sinuses is an accompanying feature.
  • Tooth infection: Abscess in a tooth is also a cause of pulsating, throbbing pain in the head.
  • Withdrawal of caffeine: Cutting back on caffeine consumption produces withdrawal symptoms, including throbbing headaches, in people who regularly have caffeine.
  • Drugs: Certain medications have a side-effect of inducing throbbing headaches. Examples of such drugs include calcium channel blockers (such as diltiazem), antibiotics (such as avelox, bactrim), intrauterine contraceptive devices, nitrates (such as nitroclycerin), vasopressin, and omeprazole. An overdose of vitamin A is also a potential cause. Stopping certain medicines such as amphetamine, ergotamine, and methysergide could also induce throbbing headaches.
  • Poisoning: Poisoning caused by a variety of toxins can lead to throbbing headaches. Examples include carbon monoxide, spoilt fish, copper, lead, arsenic, benzene, nitroglycerin, carbon tetrachloride, pesticides, solvents, and cleaning products.
  • Heat stroke: Throbbing headache along with other symptoms such as fever, dry skin, lack of sweating, nausea, dizziness, and high pulse rate are characteristic features of heat stroke.
  • High altitude sickness: A rapid ascent to a high altitude (such as in mountainous region) causes high altitude sickness. Throbbing headache is one of its symptoms.
  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure can also cause throbbing headaches, mostly in the temples and the back of the head. It is rare though, and occurs mostly when the blood pressure rises suddenly. Other cases of high blood pressure that can cause throbbing headaches include preeclampsia and eclampsia in pregnant women.

Also read sudden severe headache.

Episodes of Throbbing Headaches

  • Migraine: Throbbing headaches in migraine are usually on one side of the head. Other accompanying symptoms include sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting. Migraine headaches can be triggered by various stimuli, such as strong smells, sodium nitrate (used in hot dogs), loud noises, monosodium glutamate or MSG, red wine, and stress.
  • Sleep apnea: Apnea refers to sudden stoppage in breathing due to collapse of the airways. Sleep apnea results in very disturbed sleep. Throbbing headaches in the morning are a common result of sleep disturbances caused by apnea.
  • Seizures: Throbbing headaches may also follow a seizure.
  • Eyesight problems: Refractive errors of the eye commonly cause eye strain and throbbing headaches.
  • Basilar artery migraine: Throbbing headaches due to basilar artery migraine are usually seen in young obese females. Here, the headache episodes are triggered by menstruation.
  • Cluster headache: Intense, throbbing headaches restricted to one side of the head are a characteristic feature of cluster headaches. Cluster headache attacks occur more than once in a day, and can continue over a period of many weeks.
  • SUNCT: SUNCT stands for Short-lasting, Unilateral, Neuralgiform headache attacks with Conjuctival injection and Tearing. As the name suggests, SUCNT is characterized by one-sided throbbing headaches that cause pain around the eyes or in the temple region.

Persistent Throbbing Headaches

  • Iron deficiency anemia: Constant throbbing headaches can result from iron-deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia is caused by lack of optimal amounts of iron in the body. The causes include nutritional deficiency, blood loss, and faulty iron absorption.
  • Temporal arteritis: Low grade fever and throbbing one-sided headache are usual characteristics of temporal arteritis (inflammation of temporal artery).
  • Shingles: Shingles is caused by reactivation of chicken pox virus in the body.
  • Carotidynia: Throbbing pain and tenderness on one side of the head and neck is caused by inflammation of carotid artery.
  • Head and neck abnormalities: Structural deformities of the head and neck region, such as in Chiari malformation and syringomyelia, can also be associated with constant throbbing headaches.
  • NDPH: Constant throbbing headache without any known cause is labeled as New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH).

Treatment for Throbbing Headaches

On its own, a headache is a symptom, not a disease. The different characteristics of headaches are due to different underlying causes and mechanisms. It is imperative to identify the cause of the headache before any consideration of treatment can begin. Over-the-counter analgesics may or may not help. A consultation with a doctor is advised in case a throbbing headache is persistent, recurring, unexplained, or associated with a head injury.

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